Northern Ireland: Are the sectarian divides beginning to crumble?

Northern Ireland is a country that has made progress, with the prospect in May of an election campaign dominated not by the old politics of security, terrorist activity and sectarianism, reports Ed Jacobs.

Yesterday’s piece on the Daily Politics clearly outlined the overriding progress that has been made in Northern Ireland since what continue to the dubbed “the troubles”. This is not to say that things are now completely normal; the main split in Northern Ireland’s politics remains whether you are catholic and protestant rather than left/right.

The extra £240 million provided to the Police Service of Northern Ireland is a clear reminder of the dissident threat which continues to overshadow the nation. And the continued lack of a properly funded and supported opposition at Stormont, as bemoaned by UUP leader Tom Elliott, remains a sign of a political institution which continues to be seen as a special case, not yet able to operate like its counterparts in Scotland and Wales.

But despite this, Northern Ireland is a country that has made progress, with the prospect in May of an election campaign dominated not by the old politics of security, terrorist activity and sectarianism but by the same issues dominating the rest of the UK’s political classes, namely cuts, jobs and economic growth.

For all the anger and heat generated by it, the passing of the budget by MLAs was a clear sign of an Assembly and a government maturing, and concentrating on everyday, bread and butter issues rather than the efforts and energy that are far too often used simply to keep the executive together.

And so it is as a result of a growing confidence in Stormont’s ability to operate and the improved relations between parties that once unspoken ideas and thoughts are now becoming accepted norms.

In February, DUP leader and first minister, Peter Robinson – whose predecessor Iain Paisley has long been a critic of the catholic church – explained that he would be prepared to attend a Catholic mass of a friend. He said:

“I have a very large number, perhaps a surprisingly large number, of Roman Catholic friends. There are issues of showing respect to individuals so that (religious objections) would not keep me out of going to the communion service.”

Ahead of an expected visit to Ireland by the Pope next year, a newly released Foreign Office memo has suggested that a visit by the Pope to Northern Ireland could be possible, explaining:

“It is perhaps inevitable that focus will now shift to a possible visit by the pope to Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland has not been included in previous papal itineraries (1979 visit to Ireland and 1982 to UK).

“The deputy first minister of Northern Ireland has recently mentioned the prospect of a visit. A papal visit to Northern Ireland would take place in the context of a visit to Ireland as it is treated by all the main Christian churches as a single ecclesiastical unit.

“There is a possible peg for a papal visit to Ireland in 2012 when Dublin will host a major international Catholic event – the Eucharist Congress.”

And Martin McGuinness has warned those who might be contemplating protests in Ireland during the Queen’s forthcoming visit to Dublin not to, explaining:

“We are all on a journey and the journey we are on means there are different situations we are going to have to deal with, and Peter has identified the issue of Mass. While people have the right to protest, I think protest would be a mistake. Particularly protests that could turn violent. It would be a huge mistake.”

This is not to say that things have reached state of perfection. The TUV continue to protest at a Papal visit to Northern Ireland and McGuinness continues to harbour suspicions of the British state. But the fact is that both DUP and Sinn Fein have swallowed many bitter pills to make peace work, which can be seen in stable institutions at Stormont concerned more with public services, finances, jobs and economic growth than sectarian divisions.

And it is perhaps because of this growing maturity that the Treasury looks set to cheer all Northern Ireland’s parties by providing MLAs with the powers needed to lower corporation tax to attract inward investment and better compete with Ireland.

May’s elections provide a further opportunity to continue the progress made already.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.

12 Responses to “Northern Ireland: Are the sectarian divides beginning to crumble?”

  1. The Dragon Fairy

    RT @leftfootfwd: Northern Ireland: Are the sectarian divides beginning to crumble? reports @EdJacobs1985

  2. puffles2010

    RT @leftfootfwd: Northern Ireland: Are the sectarian divides beginning to crumble? reports @EdJacobs1985

  3. Ed Jacobs

    RT @leftfootfwd: Northern Ireland: Are the sectarian divides beginning to crumble?

  4. Catholic Observer

    Northern Ireland: Are the sectarian divides beginning to crumble?

  5. Lawrance

    The politicos in Northern Ireland are self-serving entities. They work separately from society and will not suffer in the coming cuts. They act in an undemocratic way and preside over an exclusive police state.

    They wave flags and remember the past when caught out with self-serving policies purposed toward ameliorating their American big business contacts. They get away with scandal after scandal with no affects.

    Why is that?

    I live in Northern Ireland and can’t think of a single piece of legislation passed in the last year that wasn’t about big business securing a market for themselves, cheap labour or surveillance of the Plebs.

    The Assembly through Invest Northern Ireland give huge companies about £8000 a job to come here. When that runs out they clear off. This has been happening forever and no one ever thinks about investing more in indigenous companies and protecting that trade. They quote figures about jobs created most subsidised by tax money and not long-term investment. It would be interesting to see if inward investment rises in election years? I bet it does.

    Remove the rose-coloured glasses and see an elusory gain in Northern Ireland. There are now 80 permanent barriers dividing loyalist and nationalist areas of Belfast, according to a report by the Community Relations Council (CRC) in Northern Ireland . In 1994 there were 26. This is segregation, not integration. Those walls separate people in disadvantaged economic backgrounds from one another. The problems still exist just behind higher walls and higher tech security. Does this sound like a real improvement or are we polishing faecal matter here?

    The sooner we kick all the flag-waving, NYSE appeasing puppets out of Government and get independents in the better. The current regime has no duty of care to people and think they have a right to rule not serve. The rule from above with no ground up policy development. Whether pretending prudent small c Conservatism, Socialism or even Marxism when seeking votes, in reality they run a Plutonomy. Scratch the surface and big business trumps voters of all shades and parties. It is much in the style of Carrol Quigley’s ideas. “Kicking the Scoundrels out” results in Groundhog Day where we get the same people back and without a duty of care or fear of ejection. After a couple of terms they realise they can do anything with impunity.

    At the moment it’s three wolves and a sheep talking about what to have dinner with the so-called free press cheering it on. The disgusting way big business, politics, PR and the so-called free press collude to provide a false picture of democracy is typical of the media today. The reality is, “they keep a few of their people happy and don’t care about the rest at all”, to quote the Eddie Grant song.

    The main “Apartheid” between rich Politicos and poorer sections of society they rule with a rod of irony.

    Is this the society we struggled so hard to create?

    Can we have another go please?

    Maybe with cheaper suits and more representation.

  6. Liathain

    It’s true, I concede that I am a cynical pessimist so I’ll try to start off on a positive note.

    This parliamentary term will (should) be the first to sit for a full cycle since the old Stormont Parliament was wound up in the 70’s (when you look at Sunningdale again, it really was a tragically missed opportunity).
    The replacement of direct rule with local ministers has been a massive benefit to local organisations dealing with bread and butter issues over the last few years and to be fair all the parties have significantly upped their game as a result. We’ve come a huge way from where we were.
    Still there is peace building yet to be done and it’s long since become a trueism that the areas hit hardest by the Troubles are the same areas which top all the deprivation tables.

    It’s in these areas where we haven’t made much progress and where the challenges lie. For all the much vaunted trips to investment conferences in Washington, NI still isn’t improving economically (or to be accurate we’ve stagnated at a level above the troubles but still massively below our neighbours).

    While the big spectaculars (ie a visit by Ratzi or Lizzy) may interest some international observers and middle class commentators it won’t change (or mellow) a heart or mind in these areas and indeed usually kicks off a few nights of tit for tat rioting, which in turn can massively damage relationships on the ground.

    Maybe it’s best to leave NI alone for a while, let us carry on with what we’re doing without poking the wound to see how well it’s healed.

  7. Andrew Forrest

    RT @leftfootfwd: Northern Ireland: Are the sectarian divides beginning to crumble? reports @EdJacobs1985

  8. Mr. Sensible

    Agreed Ed, there’s still more to do but progress has been made.

  9. Susan Jones

    Northern Ireland: Are the sectarian divides beginning to crumble …: Northern Ireland is a country that has mad…

  10. Lawrance

    Worth noting I was on the ground arguing for the Good Friday Agreement and one of many people excited about the prospects of peace. I still support non-violence but want rid of the current regime.

    I don’t want to win a victory over anyone and recognize that everyone including Victims of violence, Paramilitaries, Prisoners, Police, Army, Prison Officers and Non-Combatants existed in bad times and therefore in my view are all victims. Many don’t feel that way; I respect their opinion and their right to hold that opinion. A quick look at Milgram’s experiment on obedience to authority figures explains that ordinary people without evil personalities will carry out horrible acts in the wrong circumstances. Knowing that doesn’t reduce the damage or hurt felt by individuals or families.

    The problem with the peace process is it created a narrow narrative promoted every day, until the uncomplicated stereotype became the only message allowed. Any deviation from Government approved policy or thinking only carried out by dissidents or extremists.

    Sorry to burst your bubble it is a bit more complicated than that. Freedom is about freedom to think and act autonomously within reasonable boundaries. Trying to classify people to understand them often misses the complexity of human nature. Like NLP and other fads it is a little unsophisticated and out-of-date in the modern era, although the mechanics may work to a limited degree in a limited context.

    Saying anyone not supporting bad legislation and worse politicians is either a rabid firebrand Republican or Loyalist is rubbish. Nor are they stupid or naive. In the UK mainland they would be viewed as holding the system to account. But the unwillingness to admit or address problems will take us to the brink faster than honest engagement. The parties lost working-class areas a long-time ago, the Middle-class now heading for the skids. So the Assembly survived prosperous times but trundles toward Post Capitalist meltdown with little goodwill in the bank. With no real job creation plan and a weak front bench across parties and portfolios I think we are in real trouble here.

    The standard election trick is to point out the other side is dangerous. Not a great idea in coming times. The other side is all we have apart from us. The ROI has its own problems; the UK has its own problems. We have ours.

    The turnout in the 2009 election was 42.81% in total. A mandate of less than half the voting age population for the Assembly as a whole. It is compulsory to register to vote in Northern Ireland. In fact the Government tries to make everything compulsory because half their ordinary citizens want nothing whatever to do with them.

    Scary when the silent majority feels they have no say in NI politics according to the Engagement Directorate survey. Isn’t that what caused “the troubles”?

    So saying that politics is working or we are moving forward is not true. We peacefully stagnated for years and moved backwards because of the financial crisis recently. Not the politicians fault but it highlighted their low-level of ability and contrasted it with high-level corruption inherent when accountability is minimal.

    One commenter here notes:

    “The replacement of direct rule with local ministers has been a massive benefit to local organisations dealing with bread and butter issues over the last few years”

    On this issue, would you have specific examples of the “massive benefit” described?

    I can outline examples of bad legislation:

    1. Education shambles.
    2. Gridlock as environmentalist dogma. We will make your trip in to town so harrowing you will have to take the bus!
    3. Curbing freedom to protest before the cuts under the pretext of solving the parades issue.
    4. CCTVing everything possible.
    5. Claiming EU subsidies for non-existent fields and the huge fines that followed.
    6. Compulsory microchipping of dogs despite no evidence whatever it worked in NZ and other countries where introduced. Rammed through by narrow interest groups against the advice of 22 out of 26 Councils according to a USPCA representative. Would this happen on the mainland or the Republic? I doubt it, this legislation happens when big business target weak Government.
    7. Arguing intensively about boat names. The fullest I saw the Assembly this year was a good old-fashioned sectarian debate about the name of a boat.

    Seven horrible examples of disastrous legislation drafted without real consultation or duty of care to those using the new systems.

    It is worth noting parties sit on scrutiny committees and can stop legislation they don’t approve of so everyone is to blame in the Assembly for the policies if they do have any power. Which I don’t think they do.

    So my problems are with legislators as a system, not individuals or parties. I have zero interest in Flags, Parades, or what money I spend so long as I have some. I could care less if I live in the UK or the ROI. I have done both in the past. My major problem, an arrogant Government and Civil Service passing legislation that wouldn’t pass in either the RIO or the UK. A secondary complaint that big companies pick over the bones of our frail economy to turn a quick profit and leave when subsidies run out.

    All aided an encouraged by the NI Assembly and Civil Servants.

  11. Liathain

    you asked for an example of a benefit – the Autism Bill is probably the most recent (passed yesterday).

    You won’t find me pointing at them’uns as the cause of the problem, nor will you find me supporting the dominant parties in their CSI proposals or lauding them for their leadership in peace building terms.

    But just because I don’t like the government doesn’t mean I don’t like the parliament

  12. Lawrance

    But Stormont doesn’t develop current policies. Ask any Minister a specific question about policy and they won’t know the answer. Europe and its lobbyists make uber-policy. Big Business develops policy agenda. The Civil Servants develop policy detail; London enforces policy, and Stormont delivers policy. No humans involved straight from big business donors to Northern Ireland courts without any duty of care. Any protests put down to extremists or sour grapes.

    The Politicians say their lines and collect their cheques. Sorry that is the extent of their jobs. Public consultations which are the worst I have ever experienced in any organization private or public. I did public engagement for a living for three and half years in broadcasting. They don’t even do the administration role well.

    Of course it’s easier to bitch than fix. I understand that.

    However, I don’t think you can argue that most people in any country deciding not to vote because nothing ever changes is a good indicator of political health or a stable foundation to build political health on.

    I have no doubts it will change. The question is evolution or revolution? The idea this shambles could hold together in the face of what is coming may be attractive to many but history suggests odds are against it. I wouldn’t miss it if it went in its current form.

    But opinions vary you have the right to yours the same as I have the right to mine. I don’t know enough about the Autism bill to comment. On the surface it seems positive. Many things do when viewed Skin-deep. I hope it delivers in real terms for those who need it. Like the Assembly itself, time will tell.

Leave a Reply